I took a mini-trip to Los Angeles last weekend and went out to quite a few delicious restaurants. As I sat with my friend and looked at menu after menu, I was delighted when I saw escargot. I was even more delighted when I found out my friend didn’t know what escargot was (now some of you may not know either, but don’t worry — just as my friend did, you will find out soon enough).
With a little convincing I was able to order the escargot and had her enjoying it in no time. She was all smiles and raving about the great flavor, up until I let her know it was snails — her face wrinkled up and her eye might have even crossed a little. We both laughed, and that was that.
Except it got me thinking, “Why, even after she admitted the escargot was delicious, was she so turned off just to hear it was snails, and what other foods are seemingly delicious right up until we find out what they actually are?”
These hidden treasure foods can be found all over the world and are often said to be culture markers — that is to say, in a particular culture the food doesn’t even cause a local to blink, but to the wide-eyed visitor an automatic gag-reflex almost always kicks in.
Escargots, those cute little snails, are a French specialty, but to most Americans, they are an everyday garden pest that does not belong on the dinner plate. Although, crocodile on a stick may seem like a dish from the black lagoon to anyone outside the red, white and blue (in fact, it seems like a swampy mess to even many Americans not from the cultural pocket of the South).
Join me as I take a whirlwind tour of some of the strangest, and yet, most normal foods around the world.
First stop, Iceland, to dine on a Valentine’s treat: puffin heart. It has become a sport of “sky-fishing” to catch these low-flying sea parrots. The bird is cooked and is often said to be a fishier tasting chicken or duck, but the heart is actually consumed before cooking.
Next, venture across the globe in numerous directions and insects begin creeping onto the menu. Parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America all serve up different bugs in many different styles. From fried cockroaches to live ants and roasted grasshoppers to grilled spiders (no, spiders are not technically insects, but for the sake of flow let’s just consider them to be). These bugs may make some people crawl out of their skin, but they actually are quite economical; offering more protein for less fat than many of the Big Macs we pass for nutrition.
Now that we’ve taken a look at some cooked bugs, why not make room for a little live action? Casu marzu is an Italian cheese made with live insect larvae growing within. The larvae can even be startled and will put on quite the show by jumping up and out of the cheese. As a food science major, this cheese (which is closer to decomposition than fermentation) isn’t healthy, and the European Union agrees. Casu marzu is illegal and was banned from the public market — a sigh of relief overcomes me.
The food found around the world takes many forms, but it really gets you to think: “Just what is it that we call food?” Sure, there is a scientific definition (I’m sure I had to have learned it in a class or two of mine), but in reality, food plays out much like beauty — it is determined and found in the eye of the beholder.
The most exciting part is the more a global society grows, the more these foods pop up in cities near and far. This exposure acts much like glasses that enable our eyes to behold and allows us to embrace a wider world of food.